How ‘Fresh Off the Boat’ Upends The Asian BFF Trope
Jessica Huang’s friendship with a white neighbor centers the Asian-American experience in a way I’d never seen before on TV.
The season 1 finale of Fresh Off the Boat solidified Jessica Huang as one of my favorite characters on the air today. At the start of the episode, Jessica holds a dish of macaroni and cheese with bacon bits and panics that she and her immigrant family have assimilated too much and too quickly to the United States. The rest of the episode centers on this dilemma and what it means for the Chinese culture she treasures so dearly. This sort of crisis was one I had never seen before on mainstream television, particularly from an Asian American character. Now wrapping up season four, Jessica still challenges the Asian narratives I’d seen before, particularly the Asian BFF trope.
Growing up, when I saw any Asian woman or girl on TV, even as an extra, my head would snap to attention. Even if I didn’t consciously think about representation at the time, the lack of Asian characters was obvious, and made me internalize our invisibility even more. As a Korean adopted into a white family, the characters I saw on TV were some of the most intimate looks I had at Asian American family life. Living in a mostly white neighborhood, my friendships mirrored those I saw on TV — friendships like Rory Gilmore and Lane Kim’s on Gilmore Girls or, later, Meredith Grey and Cristina Yang’s on Grey’s Anatomy; I, too, was the only Asian friend among a group of white peers. However, it wasn’t until recently that I realized all these friendships were of a kind. They enforced the Asian BFF trope — and warped my perceptions of my own racial identity.
Similar to the trope of the “sassy black friend,” the Asian BFF is an often-tokenized attempt to include a person of color on screen. The Asian BFF rejects her Asian heritage, and the character’s identity revolves around attempts to emulate whiteness. Lane Kim was in a band, dated white men, and was even kicked out of her home by her tough Korean mother who tried to keep her steady on the Christian path towards a nice Korean husband. Similarly, Cristina Yang’s surgical career is in defiance of her own Korean mother’s traditional wishes. Yang is a confident, rounded character but her ethnicity is rarely mentioned — her character wasn’t even supposed to be Asian in the first place.
The Asian BFF rejects her Asian heritage, and the character’s identity revolves around attempts to emulate whiteness.
In attempts to perhaps avoid stereotypes, the Asian BFF trend creates new ones about the assimilated, rebellious Asian-American woman and her persistent efforts to gain access to white culture and spaces. There is nothing inherently wrong with these character’s quests for identities separate from the ones in which they grew up. It’s downright expected for coming-of-age stories. I saw much of my own artistic drive reflected in Lane Kim, and I saw the unwavering support my friends have for my ambitions reflected in Meredith Grey. But when encouragement to break away from one’s culture and join the “American” (read: white) culture is all we see, inadvertently or not, it pushes the narrative that Asian-ness is “less than” or undesirable. According to a recent study, even on shows with Asian-Americans and Pacific-Islanders (AAPIs) as regulars, these characters rarely get storylines that explore AAPI-related issues.
Fresh Off the Boat is different. Jessica Huang, played with sharp-edged heart by Constance Wu, is unapologetically both Chinese and an immigrant, packing noodles in her children’s lunches, dressing up as Chinese Santa, and taking the family to Taiwan for the summer. Jessica’s comfort and pride in her Asian identity alienates her from her white, cliquish neighbors (who today would definitely be part of the 53% of white women who voted for Trump). At one neighborhood gathering, Jessica passes around a plate of “stinky tofu” only to have the plate return to her fuller than it started. She starts to succumb to the pressures to fit in, pretending to be interested in what these women are interested in without reciprocity. Finally, she does find a best friend in next-door neighbor Honey, who is also alienated from the neighborhood clique due to her status as trophy wife. This friendship flips the Asian BFF trope on its head in more than one way.
From where I’m sitting in Singapore, it’s hard to buy into the hype for the movie adaptation of the bestselling novel.theestablishment.co
First, despite Honey’s fulfillment of Western leading lady beauty standards, it’s Jessica who is the confident leader in their friendship, while Honey is often passive and meek. In one episode, Jessica serenades Honey with a rendition of “I Will Always Love You,” and when a touched Honey tries to join in, Jessica pushes her away, reminding her that “this is not a duet.” Honey stumbles away passively as Jessica continues to bask, centerstage. Jessica is not only no white woman’s backup singer, she’s also a strict soloist.
Beyond this dynamic, Honey values the parts of Jessica that she loves most about herself, including her culture. In fact, it’s this that makes Jessica realize how much Honey’s friendship means to her. At one point, worried what being friends with the neighborhood outcast will do for their floundering restaurant business, Jessica’s husband tells her she can be friends with anyone else. “Swing a cat, hit a white woman,” he says. And yet this proves harder than it sounds as the women of the neighborhood whisper that Jessica’s brownies are sliced so evenly because of communism — she will always be the perpetual foreigner to them.
Meanwhile, Honey eats Jessica’s stinky tofu with gusto, a small but symbolic act. While I’ve seen strong interracial female friendships before, witnessing a white woman take an interest in and support Asian culture without it becoming a spectacle or exoticized felt special. Instead of the familiar assimilation narrative, I watched Honey willingly enter Jessica’s space and find room for herself in the life of a Chinese woman who loves who she is and where she’s from. Yes, I certainly identified with Jessica in this moment, but I also saw myself reflected in the neighborhood women and Honey. For so long I had shunned a part of myself because I thought it was less important. But thanks to new narratives like this one, the voices of the neighborhood women have faded into Honey’s, affirming that the tofu is delicious — that the entirety of me matters.
With this foundation in place, the question becomes: Where will their friendship go and how deeply will it tackle their differences? The season four premiere centered on Jessica and Honey as they took on Best Friends Week on Wheel of Fortune. Different expectations about how long Jessica and her family will stay at Honey’s home while Jessica negotiates their lease cause conflict that comes to a head in front of the wheel. Honey explains that she told Jessica to stay as long as she wanted only because of her southern politeness, while Jessica reveals that, where she’s from, you don’t have to thank family. The episode ends on an emphatically cheesy note as the women make up, yet Honey’s unblinking acceptance of Jessica’s reasoning never diminishes Jessica’s upbringing or invalidates her explanation.
This moment illustrates the show’s potential to explore the challenges of interracial female friendship while maintaining its mainstream appeal (which gives it the power to reach a broad, white audience). It can stay lighthearted while still challenging the assumption that Honey will be an unwavering white ally to Jessica. I’m glad to see Honey eat the tofu and accept Jessica’s cultural norms, but I also want to see what she does when she’s the accidental perpetuator of casual racism, or when a rich client implies they would rather work with Honey than Jessica. At a time when white female allyship with women of color is under scrutiny, the show has a chance to participate in the conversation through the unique dynamic it has created between these two women.
Dong’s work as a filmmaker and historiographer has been central to my own understanding of Asian American cinema…theestablishment.co
The development of my racial identity is still something I grapple with as an adult. Everything I saw for so long in books, TV, and movies showed being Asian as something to rebel against or ignore, but if friendships like Jessica and Honey’s existed back then, maybe I would have seen that part of myself differently instead of falling in line with the single story. Maybe I would have bristled when my friends told me I was “pretty much white.” Maybe they would have known better than to say that in the first place.
The existence of the Jessica-Honey friendship still means something to me today. It means there’s space that can be cleared for us at center stage. It shows how our white friends can and should support the sometimes challenging efforts to stay true to ourselves. Simply, it’s refreshing to see the lives of nice white women take a backseat to our own lives — and that they might even be off screen somewhere, forgotten for an entire episode, as we live and grow and love ourselves all on our own.